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Spotlight on Jay Campbell

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A Cellist's Star Turn

Jay Campbell

 (Photo by Beowulf Sheehan)

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This past fall, Jay Campbell (BM '12, MM '14, Artist Diploma '16, cello) received the singular honor of being named the youngest-ever “artiste etoile”—artist in residence—at the Lucerne Festival Academy, which means he (and fellow artiste etoile Patricia Kopatchinskaja, a violinist), will have a role in programming as well as performing in several concerts at the festival (August 20–September 4). The recognition came shortly after he received the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant. Campbell, who studied at the academy for two summers, was interviewed by Journal contributor Thomas May for the LUCERNE FESTIVAL 2017 Annual; the following is adapted from that article and appears by permission.

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It's a clear mark of distinction to have been selected from an international pool of talented young musicians to participate in the Lucerne Festival Academy. But to be asked to return to the idyllic Swiss city of music a few years later in the capacity of “artiste etoile” represents another level of achievement altogether. The spellbinding quality of Jay Campbell's artistry has earned him a series of notable successes, among them being asked by the late Pierre Boulez (Juilliard faculty 1972–75) to play the solo part for a 2010 performance of his Messagesquisse. The following year Boulez entrusted Campbell with the principal cello part in his intricate score Pli selon pli. Campbell recalls Boulez as “an incredibly generous person who clearly felt the importance of educating younger generations” and added, “I think he had a very particular orientation toward music itself that was really beautiful, and it highlighted the infinite possibilities in music, the sense of constant exploration.”

Campbell first participated in the Lucerne Festival at 21 and was thrilled to be with “so many other incredibly talented musicians who were [as] smitten with contemporary music as I was.” That interest in contemporary music has continued to shape his career—last summer, he won acclaim for his contributions as both curator and performer in the New York Philharmonic's Biennial, a celebration of contemporary music. Working closely with alumnus Alan Gilbert, director of conducting and orchestral studies, Campbell served as artistic director of a three-concert series within the Biennial devoted to the Hungarian composer György Ligeti and was the soloist in Ligeti's uniquely demanding Cello Concerto. Campbell has premiered more than 100 works to date, and his collaborations with such figures as Elliott Carter (faculty 1966–84), David Lang ('74, percussion), John Zorn, the innovative jazz musician Steve Coleman, and members of Radiohead and Einsturzende Neubauten have yielded life-changing insights. “I would think a lot about how my experiences with contemporary composers could be applied to the standard repertoire, and that was a kind of breakthrough moment for me: taking that backdoor route to find a deeper connection with the past,” he said. “As musicians, the soul is our arena. The act of the performance or even just preparing for a performance can be a very spiritual endeavor. The idea that the performer makes tangible some part of the deeply personal, inner identity and expression of another human being—sharing that with an audience is an incredible privilege.”

Along with championing new music, Campbell deeply values the classic repertoire. “I play more contemporary music but I don't consider myself a specialist,” he said. “I need to play both, and I engage with each piece or composer on their own terms.” At this summer's Lucerne Festival, for instance, he'll perform works by 20th- and 21st-century composers including a concert of premieres led by a trio of conductors including faculty member Matthias Pintscher and second-year conducting student Gregor Mayrhofer. In the intervening months, he has a full schedule of performances with the trailblazing Jack Quartet, which he joined in 2016, as well as solo engagements throughout the U.S. and Europe.

Campbell studied at Juilliard with Fred Sherry (Diploma '69, cello; faculty 1992-present), whom he calls “my musical father in many ways,” and also lists Zorn as a formative influence “who really taught me to understand that music is about people.” The Lucerne Festival's naming him an artiste etoile is “inherently risky” because he's young and early in his career, Campbell said, but that such risk-taking makes the festival a “unique and vital place.” And while he's at the festival—and in the rest of his career, Campbell added, “I aspire to be as omnivorous a musician as possible” noting that “solo work, collaborating with composers, working with students, and chamber music both standard and contemporary” are all intertwined and all “inform each other.”

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